REGGIE HAYES: Saint Francis can win a third-straight NAIA football title if…

Saint Francis players pose with the 2017 NAIA national championship banner after a 24-13 win over Reinhardt on Saturday in Daytona Beach, Fla. (Photo courtesy Bill Scott/University of Saint Francis)

After a full day to allow the University of Saint Francis football team time to savor its back-to-back NAIA national titles, let’s get down to business:

Can the Cougars make it three in a row?

I’m going to say yes, if…

The “If” is at quarterback.

Nick Ferrer’s incredible Saint Francis career came to an end with the No. 1 Cougars’ 24-13 win over No. 2 Reinhardt on Saturday in Municipal Stadium, Daytona Beach, Fla. The win completed a 14-0 season as Saint Francis became only the fifth team to repeat as NAIA champ. Coach Kevin Donley savored his first 14-0 record in 39 years of coaching.

Ferrer was the 2017 NAIA Player of the Year and he set all sorts of Saint Francis records, including 136 career touchdown passes (second in NAIA history). Ferrer had the greatest career in Saint Francis history, although junior running back Justin Green is gaining on him.

If the Cougars are going to make a run at another title next season, they have to find a suitable replacement for Ferrer.

That’s a tall task.

The competition for quarterback will include players on the roster (Clay Senerius, Danny Naylor, Jakob Coker and Jake Hill) and others yet to join the program. The Cougars are recruiting quarterbacks for 2018, and hope to have some commitments in place as early as January. Next year’s starter might not yet be on the roster.

“Big shoes” doesn’t begin to describe what Ferrer’s successor will have to fill.

Here’s the good news: The new starting quarterback will have terrific parts to work with on offense.

The returners include Green (2,031 yards rushing, 29 rushing touchdowns) and receivers Dan Ricksy (1,172 yards receiving) and Rocky James (751 yards receiving).

Green rushed for 144 yards and two scores in earning offensive player of the game honors Saturday. He has tremendous vision on the field and the speed and skill to possibly make a future run at an NFL career. He’s a legitimate candidate to succeed Ferrer as the NAIA Player of the Year.

Ricksy had a breakout season while James was dealing with a knee injury. Having both outside receivers at full health next season would give Saint Francis the top duo in the NAIA. Duke Blackwell, who had a team-high 96 yards receiving Saturday before suffering a knee injury, should be able to step in and take the role of top inside receiver manned by graduating Sean Boswell (1,020 yards receiving.).

The offensive line will need to replace Alex Woods, Connor Holcomb and Jaylen Gamble, but several backups earned playing time in 2017 and starters Austin Smoger and Nick Shoemaker return.

While the offense develops with a new quarterback, the defense returns eight of 11 starters. They lose graduating Spencer Cowherd and Lee Stewart III (“safety-backers,” as coaches label them) and nose tackle Eric Hemmelgarn. Those three are impact players. They’ll be missed.

But the returning unit includes the inside linebacker duo of Piercen Harnish, a second-team All-America, and Eric Dunten, who earned defensive player of the game honors against Reinhardt.

Defensive end Jordan May is a senior who could come back for a fifth year, having missed time with an injury. Outside linebacker Marcus Stepp, who blocked an extra point Saturday, will return, as will defensive tackle James Jamicich, defensive end Malachi Manion and outside linebacker Devin Green. The secondary returns Willy Cole, Blake Schumacher, Ryan Johnson and Stan Jackson and all have a knack for making big plays.

The only NAIA school to win three straight titles was Carroll (Mont.), which won four straight from 2002 to 2005.

Three in a row would take Saint Francis from great program to dynasty.

Can the Cougars win a third-straight title?

Yes, they can, if the find the next Ferrer.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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